Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Tolkien by Muggle

It's that time of year again. A Tolkien movie is out, and so are the critics. Not just critics of the movie, mind you -- critics of Tolkien. Some of them are even competent writers. China Mieville apparently had a go at it on the BBC, while David Brin did a turn on

I'm tempted just to shrug and forget it. Some people just don't get Tolkien, the same way I used to bounce off Dumas and Austen. My problem was just lack of experience (and in Dumas' case, a good translation). Theirs may be something more neurological; there seems to be a clear distinction in brain types between the sort of people who really love Tolkien and the sort of people who can't bear a word. But given how many people love the movies but still haven't touched the books, I feel I ought to say something to defend the poor dead guy.

But first (and cattily), I would like to note that, although China Mieville and David Brin are both gifted and acclaimed writers, they aren't up there with Tolkien. I'd really like to find out what someone like, say, Robertson Davies thought about the man. That would be something approaching parity. But Terry Pratchett has said various things about Tolkien. Probably the most profound was saying that writing fantasy is like looking at woodcut views of the road to Mt. Fuji; when you think you can't see Tolkien anymore, that's because you're standing on Mt. Tolkien itself. I think that's about right.

Something I've noticed: people like to criticize Tolkien either for including everything in the world (every word in the English language, according to one of my non-Tolkien loving friends!), or for not including everything in the world. That's because Tolkien, like Shakespeare, writes something for everyone. Unlike Shakespeare, the poor guy can't win. He knew it himself, noting how some parts that were specially praised by some were considered a blight on the book for others.

Some specific charges:

--- Lord of the Rings is too long and difficult for anyone to read.

I read it in third grade myself. In the course of a weekend. I've been known to read it in a day, but that's too intense an emotional experience to do often. Unlike many of his imitators, he never uses a long word when a short one will do. If you don't like the odd flight of poetic prose, though, you're screwed. Also, a lot of people seem to start the book thinking they are obliged to read the forewords first. If you don't like scholarly humor, just skip the things! *roll eyes* I must admit, however, that even in second grade, when I was too scared of Dark Things to read past chapter one, I liked the forewords very much. (And idiots who think pipeweed is marijuana should definitely improve their minds by reading all about Old Toby and his mysterious acquisition of nicotine-bearing plants from across the

--- Lord of the Rings is too black and white in its morality.

Hmm. Every 'good guy' has faults, failings and temptations, while the main onscreen bad guy -- the recurring bad guy -- is seen having serious second thoughts. Some of the good guys become dangers to their own side, while the recurring bad guy inadvertently wins it for our side. Yeah, that's black and white morality. Uh huh. Suuuuuuure.

--- But we don't get to see Sauron's side of the story!

Yes, you do. In large chunks of The Silmarillion. He's the anti-Gandalf in "Akallabeth", for instance.

--- Then why's the book called Lord of the Rings, if we don't get a lot of Sauron?

Because Sauron's not the lord of the Rings that really counts in this story, or because Sauron's the big problem and the guy who kicks the bucket at the climax. (And if that's a spoiler for you, Rosebud's a sled.)

--- Brin: But I wanted to read more about Sauron and his faithful followers! I've got some neat ideas right here....

There's this place called I recommend to you. Also, learn Russian and read Nienna's stuff about the Witch King and the Riders and all. You can even buy her album; she's got a good contralto. (Better yet, Brin, write the fanfic yourself.)

-- Trent Lott: But Tolkien is all racist and stuff.

Tolkien doesn't have African or Asian characters, no. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that he didn't go into African or Asian studies, hadn't set foot in Africa since he left it at the age of 3, and therefore didn't really feel himself qualified to create figures of African or Asian saga and lore. You'll notice that he stayed far away from the Irish and the Bretons, too.

There's a lot of talk in the critics about "swarthy" or "dark" people being bad, or orcs being "swarthy". This is a load of something less nourishing than manure. I'm rather upset that Peter Jackson perpetuated this by giving the orcs -- the orcs who live under mountains and seldom see the Sun -- the orcs who are descended from skinny pale elves -- dark brown skin. Well, this isn't the stupidest thing Peter Jackson did in his film adaptation, but it's about number two. When Tolkien says someone's got "fair" skin, he means that kind of fair where you get sunburned after three seconds of the sun deigning to peek through Northern
European cloudcover. When he says someone's got "brown" skin, he means they've got a slight tan. "Dark" people have Welsh complexions. Now, granted, the Welsh gave us the Tudors and therefore there is a stereotype of them being evil to which Tolkien may have subscribed....

*Welsh people run up with sticks*

Just kidding! Seriously though, unless you're talking about guys from Far Harad walking close by an oliphaunt, there's nobody in Middle Earth to be racist to. If you want to read sword and sorcery stories featuring African heroes, kingdoms and legends, I recommend the works of William Sanders. There are many good Asian fantasies; perhaps the best in English are by Barry Hughart, Lawrence Yep, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson.

--- Brin: But Tolkien is an enemy of science and technology!

This is probably the stupidest argument. You often hear people saying this approvingly, though. *roll eyes again* Tolkien would be the first to say that he didn't like factories taking over his old stomping grounds. He didn't like people who gave science as a reason for doing evil things. He thought sometimes we could do without the latest advances. Finally, he spent a great deal of his professional life fighting people who wanted to turn the cross-disciplinary study of philology into the social science of linguistics.

All these are eminently reasonable positions, IMHO. Tolkien wasn't saying, "Down with modern technology and back to dying in childbirth back on the land!" No, he was just saying that there's something to be said for trees, taking long walks, and eating and drinking at one's own pace. He wasn't saying, "There should be no scientific surveys of language," for that matter. He just wanted language study to be done in context -- and indeed, people are beginning to see things his way. He was not behind the times; he was ahead of them -- a thoroughly modern conservative.

Brin's complaints largely amount to "He wasn't writing hard science fiction or techno-fantasy." Well, duh. But even in Lord of the Rings itself, again and again Tolkien paid close scientific attention to the details of his world. Although he obviously is not acknowledging the attention Tolkien pays to the linguistic details of his worldbuilding, even Brin cannot deny that Tolkien gets the positions of the moon and stars right and is concerned with forensic evidence as well as a good recipe for cooking rabbit.

Another thing. I'm really impressed by how well Peter Jackson did Fellowship of the Ring. Unfortunately, I'm disgusted by how much better the film could have been if they'd stuck a little closer to the book. Aragorn is now the main character, for example. *rolls eyes again* Worse yet, they took the mature and confident guy who had a plan and turned him into a reluctant hero. (You know, I hate to point this out, but that's what the old main character -- you know, that Frodo guy? -- was supposed to be.) I hear frightening things about more fanfic inserted into The Two Towers, including a scene where everybody thinks Aragorn is dead for stupid reasons, and removing the Rangers so he's not hereditary chief of anybody and has no kindred at all. Basically, they're trying to turn Tolkien into one of those bad Tolkien ripoffs, under the delusion that'd be more marketable.

Finally, frankly, I don't care whether or not Tolkien had "enough" female characters, as long as he has Galadriel, Eowyn, Ioreth, Rosie, and Luthien. I'm not really interested in most people's criticisms of his poetry; I think he wrote the best integration of story and song since Lady Murasaki wrote The Tale of Genji. Anybody who's unfortunate enough not to appreciate the man's work has already been penalized in a way more severe than any flaming I can give.

Tolkien did have weaknesses as a writer. This is his major one: he didn't finish enough of the stories he started, and he didn't live long enough. But his work will outlive all his critics, that I guarantee.


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